Robert Theodore McCall (December 23, 1919 – February 26, 2010) was a conceptual artist, known particularly for his works of space art. McCall was an illustrator for Life magazine in the 1960s, created promotional artwork for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Richard Fleischer’s productionTora! Tora! Tora! and worked as an artist for NASA, documenting the history of the Space Race. McCall was also production illustrator on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The character Commander William Riker expressed admiration for the work of “Bob McCall” in one episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
McCall’s work can be found on U.S. postage stamps, and also NASA mission patches such as for Apollo 17. His murals grace the walls of the National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, The Pentagon, Epcot, and Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
At first glance you might think he’s the local football coach: a burly, enthusiastic bear of a man who peppers his speech with “gee” and “golly” and exudes all the restless animated spirit of a grown Huck Finn. Yet if you watch him closely, if you study that expressive face, you see that there is a far look in his blue eyes, a gaze that sees into the future. At the easel, his expressiveness moves to the tips of his fingers. He falls silent. He stands before the easel or perches on a high stool for hours on end, as he paints.
On the canvas a new glimpse of tomorrow begins to take shape. All the enthusiasm and knowledge pent up in him takes the form of a picture of futuristic beauty where human beings are building a good new world for themselves.
If you are one of the he tens of millions who have visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington , D.C. , you have seen the work of Robert T. McCall. His vast mural depicting man’s conquest of the Moon covers an entire wall on the Museum’s main floor, not far from the main entrance, where the Wright Brothers’ original flying machine is displayed alongside Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module and a sliver of rock from the Moon.
If you saw the now-classic motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey, chances are you were attracted to it by posters featuring the paintings of Robert T. McCall. His vision of the wheel-shaped space station and of space-suited astronauts on the Moon have adorned movie theaters and art museums around the world.
If you have ever bought U.S. postage stamps that feature a scene from the American space program, you have probably licked the back of a Robert T. McCall picture. He has chronicled the history of Apollo, the Apollo-Soyuz joint US-USSR mission of 1975, and the more recent Space Shuttle missions for the Postal Service. Some of his stamps have been to the Moon and back.
Like so many other men and women who find themselves not only fascinated by space exploration, but actively devoting their careers to it, Robert McCall first became interested in space flight and astronautics through reading science fiction.
He was born in Columbus , Ohio , in 1919, a Middle American from the heart of the nation. He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the Columbus Fine Art School. Like many an American, he started working even before his schooling was finished. At the age of seventeen he took a job with a local sign shop, which made posters for streetcars and outdoor advertising billboards.
And he read science fiction magazines: Astounding Stories of Super Science, Amazing Stories, Startling, and Thrilling Wonder. The masthead Amazing proclaimed that the tales printed on its pulp pages were “Extravagant fiction today; cold fact tomorrow.” As true a prophecy as was ever made. The young Bob McCall also read Popular Science and National Geographic and other magazines about technology and exploration. Some magazines were bought at secondhand shops; others came from his grandfather’s collection.
“My grandfather was a typical country doctor,” McCall states fondly, “with some special distinction because he was a contributing editor for some years for the American Medical Journal. That’s a very unique distinction for an Ohio country doctor. He wrote many articles, and my father had stacks of the old journals. I can remember reading through those and going through the old medical books when I was eight, nine, ten years old.”
McCall’s father was a schoolteacher for most of his life “We grew up in very modest circumstances,” McCall says.
McCall knew he wanted to be an artist as early as the age of eight. Yet he had an intense interest in science and technology, as well. For a while the family cherished hopes that he would become a physician, like his grandfather. But by the time Bob was a teenager it was clear that his special talent was in drawing. “I would draw things that interested me. I loved to draw military subjects-conflict and battle. Knights and their armor had a special fascination for me then. Their goals were sort of similar to those of the astronauts’ adventuresome spirits.”
There were no astronauts when Bob McCall was a teenager, only tales of space adventures in, pulp magazines. But he remembers the first flying machines he ever saw, a group of biplanes that roared low over Columbus when he was about seven years old.
“Then we went to the Ohio State Fair and saw some old surplus World War I bombers. They were huge! Of course, by today’s standards they look like toys. But they looked enormous to me then. And the thing I liked about airplanes, in addition to the look of them, was the noise, It was a driving, powerful sound.”
He got his chance to hear the driving, powerful roar of aircraft engines over and over again when he joined the Army Air Corps during World War II. McCall was sent to Kirtland Field, just outside Albuquerque , New Mexico . The war ended before he could be sent overseas. But while in Albuquerque he met Louise Harrup, who was studying fine art at the University of New Mexico . They were married within a year, a marriage that has produced two daughters — Linda and Catherine — four grandchildren, and a beautiful house in Paradise Valley , Arizona , that is filled with paintings — both Bob’s and Louise’s. Her work has been displayed in collections throughout the country, and she has had a number of solo shows.
After the war, Bob and his bride went to Chicago , where he entered the demanding world of advertising art. His aim was to become a first-rank illustrator, like Norman Rockwell or N. C. Wyeth. “I knew that to be a top illustrator you had to finally end up in New York . So the first step for me was Chicago .”
Within three years McCall was ready for New York , and in 1949 he and Louise arrived there. Instead of concentrating on advertising art, however, Bob began painting magazine illustrations. He worked for Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and even his childhood favorite, Popular Science. Much of his work dealt with aviation.
In the 1950s the space program began. “To me,” he recalls, “that became the frontier of aviation.” Just as test pilots made the transition from jet planes to rocket-boosted spacecraft, so did painter Bob McCall. “It was visually dramatic” he says. “All of the buildup to a manned launch, so theatrical and dramatic. It really inspired me. And then, back to the sound again. The sound of a Saturn V launching is an awesome experience. The sound is just incredible!”
He got into the space program through an Air Force connection. In the mid-1950s the Air Force started inviting artists on trips to air bases and installations all over the world. There the artists made sketches, took photographs, and then returned to their studios to produce paintings that were annually presented to the Air Force at a special dinner. To Bob McCall, this was not only a chance to be with the men and machines he loved to draw, it was an opportunity to see the world. He visited the Louvre and the other great museums of Europe for the first time. He saw for himself the masterpieces of European art. “And I got to fly in all the aircraft,” he adds, with a boyish grin. “I’d go to great lengths to get permission to fly in the backseat of a jet fighter.”
In time, McCall donated some 45 paintings to the Air Force. They hang in the Pentagon, the Air Force Academy, and in air bases around the world. Others are part of a traveling exhibition, open to the public. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed, its administrators decided to initiate a similar art program. McCall was among the first to be invited to participate, along with some of the most well-known painters in the United States , such as Jamie Wyeth, Peter Hurd, Robert Rauschenberg, and Norman Rockwell.
For Bob McCall, NASA’s rockets and astronauts were love objects at first sight. He became an eyewitness to the space program, covering every major launch, frequently at his own expense because NASA could not extend an official invitation to the same painter every time. But Bob McCall was there, every time. He was with the astronauts when they laboriously wormed into their cumbersome space suits. He even tried the task himself, to see what it was like from the inside. He went up the gantry elevator with them and watched them clamber into their spacecraft. He stood in the control center during the countdown and sketched the final tense moments before launch. He even went out on an aircraft carrier to witness the recovery of astronauts from an ocean landing.
More than that. In addition to painting the story of America ‘s space program,
McCall began to paint the future.
It started with paintings he did for Life magazine in the early 1960s, depicting future spacecraft. It accelerated when Stanley Kubrick invited him to England to paint advertising posters for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. There he met not only Kubrick, but Arthur C. Clarke, the writer whose work in science fiction and engineering technology had helped to create the space program and the first communications satellites.
McCall began to paint the future. Not merely the spacecraft of tomorrow, but the entire range of human experience in a future where we use our technology to build a life of abundance and adventure.
With enthusiasm, he says, “It’s fun dreaming up strange, out-of-this-world vehicles and environments. Through it all is a feeling of wonder and excitement about the universe, an overwhelming conviction that we’re not alone, that the universe is teeming with life and that we someday will make contact. It could be a thousand years from now or it could be tomorrow-or tonight.”
Reminded that most futurists and professional prognosticators forecast a good deal of gloom for the immediate future, McCall smiles and replies, “I think when we finally are living in space, as people will be doing soon, we’ll recognize a whole new freedom and ease of life. These space habitats will be more beautiful because we will plan and condition that beauty to suit our needs. I see a future that is very bright.
“Today my influences are more from the past than the present. I like realism in art. The reason I now paint the future almost exclusively, and document the space program, is that I am interested in science and technology and this accumulating, snowball effect of knowledge. It’s so dramatic to anticipate what’s ahead, and we are learning so much, so rapidly, and we are able to cope with it and deal with it and store it and retrieve it. We’ve already achieved such incredible successes that it seems that anything is possible.”
The uniqueness of Robert T. McCall’s vision of tomorrow is that what he sees with his inner eye he puts onto canvas in paintings that have all the sweep and power of a bold imagination, yet the detail and discipline to convince us that these futuristic scenes can be built by mortal hands.
Because of his talent we can see this future too: inspect it, enjoy it, and I resolve to help build it.
McCall died in 2010 of heart failure in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I am living the future that I dreamed about when I was a young boy, and for me it is just as bright and wonderful as I imagined it would be. Many of the paintings in this collection are my current graphic thoughts about tomorrow.
One of the joys of being an artist is the freedom to create one’s own world, and through the use of brushes and paints, to explore that world and participate in adventures of the mind that the real world could not possibly provide. Like the real world, these excursions of the imagination are fraught with inaccuracies of perception-it is rare that one glimpses through the veil of time even a hint of tomorrow’s reality nor does it seem important to me, whether one’s perceptions are right or wrong-the pleasure is in making the predictions and doing the work.
Today we live a world filled with awesome possibilities, both good and bad. The rush of technology is so rapid, to stay abreast of it has become more and more difficult. Our understanding of the physical universe continues to grow and astonish us with its marvelous complexity.”
“The future is bright and filled with promise for us all. And the human spirit driven as it is, with an insatiable desire to know, to explore, and to understand will continue forever to reach up ward and outward.”